As the sun rises over Nalabana in Odisha, dozens of bar-headed geese, greater flamingos, black-tailed godwits and northern pintails shuffle about on the edge of the shore, the wind caressing their feathers. The birds silently feed, sticking their long bills into the soft earth to dig up crabs and fish. Their languid, unhurried behaviour gives away little of their epic journeys to get here, from pole to pole.
The Nalabana island is part of the Chilika Lake, India’s largest brackish water lagoon. This island, a secluded portion of green, is home to large flocks of migratory birds that make their way to the lagoon every year during winter. According to Susanta Nanda, Chief Executive, Chilika Development Authority (CDA), the record number of birds seen this year is a result of rooting out the illegal prawn-rearing enclosures from the lake by the forest department. For over two decades, the lagoon was ravaged by illegal prawn farming, choking one of the world’s finest biodiversity hotspots.
- Nalabana was declared a bird
- sanctuary in 1973 under the
- Wildlife Protection Act.
- The island gets partially submerged during the monsoon.
- As the monsoon recedes in winter, water levels decrease and the island is gradually exposed.
- Birds flock to the island in large numbers to feed on its extensive mudflats.
- The lake is the largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl found anywhere on the Indian subcontinent.
- Some rare, and endangered species listed in the IUCN Red List inhabit the lagoon for at least part of their life cycle.
Last year, a demolition drive by the Odisha Government was launched in June, to unclog the waters by removing miles of fine mesh nets. The illegal farming dealt a compounding blow to the lake’s ecosystem. The prawn juveniles that were reared grew in size, feeding on most of the phytoplankton, that are a crucial part of the marine environment. From crabs and fish to birds, all animal life that lives off the oceans is directly or indirectly dependent on the phytoplankton community. According to environmentalists, the removal of the illegal prawn-rearing enclosures has led to a visible change in the lake’s ecosystem. Last year, four new species were added to the bird atlas of Chilika — Eurasian bittern, glossy ibis, Goliath heron and eastern curlew.
How to get there Best time to visit
- Air: The nearest airport is at Bhubaneshwar. The distance from Bhubaneshwar to Barkul (Chilika) is 105 kilometres.
- Rail: The nearest railway station is Balugaon, six kilometres from Barkul.
- Road: The
- distance from Visakhapatnam to Barkul is 340 kilometres and takes about
- six hours.
- In the months of November to March, the migratory birds make their journey from Northern Eurasia, the Caspian region, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Lake Baikal and remote areas of Russia.
Spread over an area of 15.53 square kilometres, the Nalabana bird sanctuary is a winter home for migratory birds from the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions during their onward and return migration along the East coast. Marked by poles with signboards that read ‘No Fishing Inside’, this island has been kept off-limits for tourists. It takes an hour-and-a-half by speed boat from Barkul to reach this serene island. Most tourists who come to Chilika watch the birds from a distance, from behind the marked periphery of the sanctuary.
In large numbers
- This time, the birds have arrived in numbers never seen before! Chilika received a record 10.47 lakh migratory birds of 181 species this year, an increase from last year’s figures of about 9.83 lakh birds of 147 species. Located in the middle of the lagoon, Nalabana’s bird count has also increased to about 3.93 lakh from 3.20 lakh last year.
The sanctuary is heaven for these migratory birds, thanks to the efforts of the Forest Department and CDA, who keep a strict vigil of the area. Armed with high-range binoculars, forest guards protect the coast from the bird protection camps which have three watch towers inside the sanctuary. “If we see any suspicious activity, like a boatman straying inside the protected Nalabana area, the team rushes to the place to seize the boat as well as the catch,” says Niranjan, who is a part of the bird protection group. According to him, one doesn’t need expensive equipment or expert knowledge to understand the avian world. “The most important ‘tools’ are your eyes, ears and mind! All other things are optional,” he says. Niranjan, along with his team, patrols the bird sanctuary through the day and night.
As dusk falls, the crimson sun in the backdrop and the spectacular flight of migratory birds over the still waters of the vast lagoon paint a picture of harmony. Amidst the peaceful setting, a white-bellied sea eagle — a magnificent raptor — makes a dive at a small northern shoveler. Startled, the shoveler makes a valiant attempt to escape to see another day at the Nalabana bird sanctuary.